Did You Really Mean to Say That?

We’ve all been guilty of making a comment that we either instantly or later regretted. If you’ve ever congratulated someone on her pregnancy, only to find out she wasn’t pregnant, you know exactly what I mean. There’s no way to recover, no matter how hard you try. 

In such an embarrassing situation, we know we’ve screwed up and we’ve hopefully learned a lesson about speaking before thinking. There are other times, however, when someone says something inappropriate or even offensive, and has no idea they’ve done it. In these cases the damage is done, but no lesson is learned. In the case of an organization, a brand image can be severely damaged by a carelessly worded comment. 

My oldest son Danny and I were recently in Los Angeles for a conference. After getting off the plane at LAX we waited for the Hertz shuttle bus to take us to the Hertz rental center. We waited, and waited, along with an ever-growing crowd of irritated customers. We watched as multiple shuttle buses from other rental car companies passed by, wondering what was going on with Hertz. 

When the shuttle finally arrived, we all crammed on. As the driver was arranging some luggage on the rack, I casually commented to him that they needed to add some more buses to the route. His exact response was, “We have enough buses. The problem is there are too many customers.” 

As I thought to myself, “Too many customers? Did he really mean to say that?” Danny muttered, “If you think you have too many customers, we can help you with that. We can reduce that number by two right now.” But the driver was already walking away, didn’t hear what Danny said, and was totally oblivious to the fact that his comment implied he wished some Hertz customers would go away. 

Another time Danny was visiting a friend in the hospital. As he got on the elevator, two nurses got on behind him. Without considering the effect of her words, one of the nurses said to the other, “It smells like someone died in here.” Hoping she wasn’t referring to his friend (she wasn’t), Danny was shocked that a hospital staff member would make such a comment. He thought, “Did she really mean to say that?” 

I’m confident that in both of these examples, the employees weren’t purposely saying something flippant or inappropriate. They simply made the comments without thinking and probably thought nothing more about it. But the damage was done. The customer heard what was said, interpreted the comments, and thought a little less positively about the organization and the employees involved. 

We all need to recognize that when we’re around customers, clients, patients, etc., we are onstage, and our words matter. Whatever the situation, we need to speak in a way that builds relationships and confidence. It helps to think like an owner – “If this was my company or organization, how would I say what I’m about to say?” 

The Hertz shuttle bus driver could have simply responded with, “You’re right. I’m going to call dispatch right now. I apologize for the wait, and I appreciate your business.” Danny and I would have felt better about the driver and about Hertz.

The nurse in the second example, of course, could have said nothing at all about the odor. But according to Danny there was an obvious odor in the elevator. So, if she was going to comment, the nurse could have simply said something like, “I’m not sure what’s causing that smell, I’m going to have someone check it out.” In this way the employee would have acknowledged an obvious problem, said what she was going to do about it, and left the hospital’s image intact. 

As I wrote at the beginning of this post, we’ve all been guilty of making regrettable comments. But that reality should teach us that words do have consequences, and we can learn from our own mistakes as well as from the mistakes of others (such as shuttle bus drivers, nurses, and every other profession).

Here’s something to think about: How would you talk to your customers, around your customers, and about your customers if you were the organization’s owner?